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Some thoughts on baseball, now that there will be a full, normal 2022 season

We came close to having the season blown up. Instead, baseball is back.

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One of the best things about baseball is its 162-game season. It provides for a daily drumbeat of games, wins, losses, stories, something that keeps the rhythm of our springs and summers going. At least, I can say it’s done so for me for as long as I can remember: The buildup to Spring Training, practice games, a countdown to Opening Day, afternoons and evenings filled with baseball every single day until October, when the sport then has its championship tournament.

That came very, very close to being disrupted this year, and since I wrote a long article blaming owners for the 100-day lockout yesterday, it’s only fair to commend them for getting together with players and making an agreement just in the nick of time to save a 162-game season for us, the fans. Yes, it will require a few tweaks from the original schedule, and it won’t have a full Spring Training, but now we can begin that countdown to Opening Day. I can’t say I’m not still unhappy with the lockout and the way it all went down, but with baseball back, I’ve got some time to see some practice games to heal those wounds and feel excited about the Cubs opening the season against the Brewers at Wrigley Field April 7.

In this article, I’m going to skip over the financial details of the deal, most of which are public now. You can read a good analysis of those numbers in this article by Jay Jaffe at Fangraphs.

Instead, I want to focus on some of the changes this agreement is going to make on and off the field, both now and in the future. One thing regarding that April 7 Cubs opener: It was originally listed as a 6:40 p.m. CT start. The Cubs website now lists it as a 1:20 p.m. CT start, so those of you who don’t feel it’s really “Opening Day” unless it’s an afternoon game will get your wish. That also means the Cubs should have a game in hand that they can switch from day to night later in the season.

Regarding the games “cancelled,” which were un-cancelled Thursday: The Cubs have five of them. Three of them will be in Cincinnati, where the teams and the league will have to get creative to make them up — and remember, the Cubs’ final road series against the Reds includes the Field of Dreams Game in Iowa in August. The other two are home games against the Cardinals. The other two series against St. Louis at Wrigley in 2022 are scheduled for June 2-5 and August 22-25, both four-game sets. The June series has an off day after it for both teams, so perhaps one of the “cancelled” games will be made up there with the other as a doubleheader in August. (And yes, the Cubs won’t play the Cardinals at Wrigley in September 2022.)

Speaking of schedules:

I don’t think I like this idea. I understand the concept here: With a 12-team playoff (and I’ll get to that), this is a way of ensuring that everyone plays roughly the same schedule. But do you want to see fewer Cubs/Cardinals or Cubs/Brewers games and more random series against (say) the Royals, Padres or Rangers? No offense to those teams or their fans, but personally, I think divisional rivalries enhance the game and the Cubs certainly sell more tickets — and get better TV ratings — for games against the Cardinals than teams from the East or West divisions of either league.

One thing’s for sure: Fans outside New York and Boston won’t mind fewer Yankees/Red Sox games.

About that 12-team postseason, here’s how it’s going to work:

12 Clubs will be eligible for the postseason (six per league) beginning in 2022. The six Postseason Clubs in each league will consist of the three Division Champions and three “Wild Card” Clubs.

The two Division Champions in each league will receive first-round byes, and the remaining four Clubs that qualify for the postseason will play a best-of-three-game series in the “Wild Card” round, with the Division Winning Club receiving the highest seed among that group and the remaining Clubs seeded by their win-loss record. The top seed in each matchup will retain home-field advantage.

That’s information I received directly from MLB. I think it should read “the two Division Champions in each league with the best records” will receive byes, with the other four teams playing a best-of-three Wild Card series. The higher seed in the Wild Card series will get all three games at home.

If this system had been in place in 2021, matchups would have been as follows:

NL: Giants and Brewers receive byes. Wild card matchups: Braves vs. Reds, Cardinals vs. Dodgers. The Reds would have been the additional team, the No. 6 seed with an 83-79 record.

AL: Rays and Astros receive byes. Wild card matchups: White Sox vs. Blue Jays, Red Sox vs. Yankees. The Blue Jays would have been the additional team, the No. 6 seed with a 91-71 record.

This system will be less likely to include a sub-.500 team than the proposed 14-team system that owners wanted. It’s entirely possible that many seasons will include a near-.500 team like the Reds. It should be noted that one reason for that is that in the 2021 season there were two NL teams, the Giants and Dodgers, who won 107 and 106 games respectively. This system, since it continues to reward division champions, would have wound up dumping a 106-win team (Dodgers) into a wild-card series — with no home games. At least it’s a series and not a one-and-done game. When MLB expands to 16-team leagues — and make no mistake, it will — divisional realignment should help mitigate this issue.

One other thing that will change with the new playoff system: No more Game 163 to break ties for playoff berths. Ties will be broken in an NFL-style system, with head-to-head records being the first tiebreaker, then others if needed.

Game 163’s were fun. The Cubs’ tiebreaker game against the Giants in 1998, won 5-3 by the Cubs, is one of my favorite Wrigley Field memories. I’ll never forget coming out of a Clark Street bar after the Rockies beat the Giants to force the tie to see hundreds of people running down the street to get in line at Wrigley to buy tickets for the tiebreaker game. (Too bad there were no smartphones then, video of that would have been awesome).

But, with the expanded playoff schedule requiring a three-game wild card series, there’s no time for tiebreaker games anymore. I understand the reasoning; they’ll still be missed, a quirky but indelible part of baseball history.

The universal designated hitter has arrived and will now be in use for all games. As I’ve said many times, this is long overdue. I won’t belabor this because I know some of you are still against the DH. In the end, though, I suspect you won’t really notice the difference much when games are actually played. Last October, thinking this might happen, I wrote this article indicating likely “lasts” by Cubs pitchers batting. I suppose it’s notable that the final hit by a Cubs pitcher (Cory Abbott) was a little dribbler down the third-base line and the final plate appearance by a Cubs pitcher resulted in a called strikeout (Alec Mills). Granted and stipulated that the occasional pitcher home run (last by a Cub: Jon Lester in 2019) was fun. There just weren’t enough of them to make up for all the strikeouts. Those, I won’t miss.

One thing the universal DH will likely do is almost eliminate the sacrifice bunt from the game. Of the 536 sacrifice bunts made in 2021, 405 (75.6 percent) were made by pitchers.

Cubs pitchers hit .112/.138/.125 (26-for-232) in 2021 with three extra-base hits (all doubles), six walks and 117 strikeouts. I will not miss that, not one bit.

A huge thumbs-up to this. Growing the game internationally is one of the things Rob Manfred has done right as Commissioner. The Cubs were supposed to play a series against the Cardinals in London in 2020 that wound up cancelled due to the pandemic. I hope those two clubs will get another chance to play an international series. Paris would be fun!

Also, nothing’s been announced yet but I assume this agreement means that the World Baseball Classic will return in 2023. It was supposed to last occur in 2021, but was another pandemic casualty and at that time, postponed till 2023. I enjoy the WBC quite a bit and hope it will happen next year.

It was also announced that MLB jerseys and helmets will now include advertising.

Traditionalists — and I am usually one of those — will scream bloody murder about this, but in the end, I don’t care. There’s now advertising splashed all over the walls and video boards at Wrigley Field, and I would say that if you’re paying attention to that you’re doing it wrong. There’s been intrusive advertising during televised games, too. Those 15-second inserts between pitches can be annoying, but again, I would say it’s better to not let that distract from your enjoyment of the game.

It does probably mean that I won’t be buying any more jerseys, though. Why should I pay for the right to wear some corporate ads around? (And yes, I realize wearing a team’s jersey already does that, but in that case it advertises a team I’ve invested my own emotions in. Not so much for an insurance company, oil company or car manufacturer.)

This... I’m not so sure this is a good thing:

There’s danger here, I suspect. Promotional and endorsement activities? Okay, I guess, but just this week we learned of the suspension of NFL player Calvin Ridley for gambling on games. I hope that doesn’t happen to any MLB player. Further, with the expansion of gambling surrounding baseball, there have already been threats made against players, which I detailed in this article here last December. It’s something baseball will have to carefully monitor, even as a sports book is under construction at Wrigley Field.

What could possibly go wrong?

Lastly, about rule changes: Beyond the universal DH, we will go back to nine-inning games for doubleheaders, and the “ghost runner” (derisively called the “Manfred man”) will vanish forever. I’m sure most or all of you are happy about the latter two. Going forward past 2022:

Beginning in 2023, a Joint Competition Committee comprised of four active players, six members appointed by MLB and one umpire will be tasked with making decisions on other changes, such as a pitch clock, limits on defensive shifts, larger bases and the automatic ball/strike system. Any rule changes that committee adopts can be implemented with 45 days’ notice to the players.

I am going under the assumption that in 2023, we will have a pitch clock almost for sure. Same for the larger bases. Regarding defensive shifts, I suspect some form of limitation will happen, subject to discussion by the committee mentioned above. It’s good that there will be active players on that committee, good for MLB for doing that.

In the end, though there seemed to be quite a bit of acrimony between owners and players, a deal was reached that did, in fact, give significant gains to players financially, especially the pre-arbitration players with the addition of the bonus pool. This is something players truly wanted and while in general the agreement is incremental change, it has reversed some of the things players lost in the last decade. With more money coming into the game via TV and gambling, players should in the end get a larger percentage of revenue after seeing that percentage slide over the last 10 years.

But baseball is back, and when we hear the thwack of ball in glove or the crack of the bat on a sunny day in Mesa or a chilly April afternoon in Chicago, all will be well again with the baseball world.

Play ball!